Preview: In-form Australia ready to take on underprepared South Africa

Australian batsman Ricky Ponting bats in the nets ahead of the first Test against South Africa Getty Images

Cape Town: Nov 8, 2011

A lack of first-class preparation shapes up as a major challenge for South Africa ahead of the first of two Test matches against Australia, starting at Newlands on Wednesday.

Seven of the hosts 14-man squad, including Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher and Dale Steyn, have not played any first-class cricket since the final Test against India at the same ground in January.

Australia, by contrast, won a three-Test series in Sri Lanka in September and had a first-class match against South Africa A last week.

The tourists had a comfortable win on a lively pitch with uneven bounce, which made batting difficult, but most of the batsmen showed some form, while Mitchell Johnson led an impressive bowling performance.

Left-arm fast bowler Johnson had match figures of nine for 112.

Conditions are likely to be different at Newlands, although there are question marks about how the pitch is likely to play unusually early in the season.

Bowlers struggled to take wickets and batsmen could not score quickly on a slow surface during the only four-day match played at the ground this season, although there was some life for bowlers during a Twenty20 international between South Africa and Australia last month.

South Africa named two spin bowlers in their squad and it is widely expected that Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir will make his Test debut as an attacking option after starring during the World Cup in Asia earlier this year.

Tahir took 42 wickets at an average of 20.58 in five domestic franchise first-class matches last season but has only taken 10 wickets at 40.90 this season, which could mean that left-armer Paul Harris will keep his place after starting the season well with 14 wickets at 15.78.

Harris suggested at a press conference that South Africa might select two spinners but this would be surprising in a home Test, where pace and seam usually dominate.

Assuming that only one spinner is chosen, the selectors have another tough choice in deciding whether Lonwabo Tsotsobe or Vernon Philander should provide seam back-up to the fast bowling pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who are first and fourth on the official Test bowling rankings.

Left-armer Tsotsobe has established himself in the national one-day team but has taken only nine wickets in five Tests at an average close to 50.

The uncapped Philander has topped the four-day competition bowling averages for the past two seasons and has the ability to bowl accurately at good pace to apply pressure on the batsmen.

If he does make his debut, Philander will be bowling on his home ground.

Australia are likely to go in with the same batsmen who played against South Africa A.

However, the bowling could be bolstered by the return of fast bowler Ryan Harris, possibly at the expense of the medium-paced Trent Copeland, to bowl alongside Johnson, Peter Siddle, off-spinner Nathan Lyon and medium-paced Shane Watson.

Watson has yet to play a Test match against South Africa and will open the batting with Phillip Hughes against Steyn and Morkel, in what could be a key battle.

Hughes had a sensational debut series in South Africa three seasons ago but has struggled to recapture that form.

The tall Morkel has looked menacing whenever he has played this season but Steyn has yet to hit top form, although he expressed confidence at the weekend that he was nearing his best. (AFP)


South Africa (Probable): Graeme Smith (c), Jacques Rudolph, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince, Mark Boucher (wk), Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Imran Tahir.

Australia (Probable): Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Michael Clarke (c), Shaun Marsh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, Patrick Cummins.

Umpires: Billy Doctrove (WI), Ian Gould (ENG)

TV umpire: Billy Bowden (NZL)

Match referee: Roshan Mahanama (SRI).

Time: 10.30 local (14.30 IST).